Unitarian Universalism

flaming chalice

Unitarian [yoo-ni-tair-ee-uhnUniversalism [yoo-nuh-vur-suh-liz-uhm] (UUism or Unitarianism) is a syncretistic, theologically liberal religion characterized by a, ‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning.’ Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed, but are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth and by the understanding that an individual’s theology is a result of that search and not a result of obedience to an authoritarian requirement.

Unitarian Universalists draw from all major world religions, and have a wide range of beliefs and practices. Members might describe themselves as humanist, agnostic, deist, atheist, pagan, Christian, Muslim, monotheist, pantheist, polytheist, or use no label at all.

Unitarian Universalism was formed from the consolidation in 1961 of two historically Christian denominations, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (Christian Unitarianism is a theological movement named for its understanding of God as one person, in direct contrast to Trinitarianism). At the time of the consolidation, the theological significance of these terms had expanded beyond the traditional Christian understanding. Unitarian Universalists today draw from a variety of religious traditions. Individuals may or may not self-identify as Christians or subscribe to Christian beliefs, but congregations and fellowships tend to retain some Christian traditions, such as Sunday worship with a sermon and the singing of hymns. The extent to which the elements of any particular faith tradition are incorporated into personal spiritual practice is a matter of personal choice for congregants, in keeping with a creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development.

New England Unitarians evolved from the Pilgrim fathers’ Congregational Christianity, which was originally based on a literal reading of the Bible. Liberalizing Unitarians rejected the Trinitarian belief in the tri-partite godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/Spirit. Instead, they asserted a unitary notion of God. New England Universalists rejected the Puritan forefathers’ emphasis on the select few, the Elect, who were reportedly saved from eternal damnation by a just God. Instead Universalists asserted that all people will eventually be reconciled with God. Universalists rejected the hellfire and damnation of the evangelical preachers, who tried to revive the fundamentalist Christianity of the early Pilgrim fathers.

Universalism broadly refers to a theological belief that all persons and creatures are related to a god or the divine and will be reconciled to (a) god (Universal Salvation). Christian Universalism is based upon the doctrine of universal salvation through Christ (universal reconciliation) and an interpretation of the ‘restitution of all things’ (apocatastasis). In 1793, Universalism emerged as a particular denomination of Christianity in the United States, eventually called the Universalist Church of America. Early American advocates of Universal Salvation such as Elhanan Winchester, Hosea Ballou and John Murray taught that all souls would achieve salvation, sometimes after a period resembling purgatory. Christian Universalism denies the doctrine of everlasting damnation, and proclaims belief in an entirely loving God who will ultimately redeem all human beings.

Historically, Nontrinitarianism consisted of dissenting factions within Christianity. The term may refer to any belief about the nature of Jesus Christ that affirms God as a singular entity and rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and is usually distinguished from Arianism (Arius asserted that the Son of God was a subordinate entity to God the Father), which was rejected by mainstream Christianity. This concept resurfaced later in Church history, especially during the theological turmoils of the Protestant Reformation. A Spanish physician, Michael Servetus, studied the Bible and concluded that the concept of the Trinity, as traditionally conceived, was not biblical. His books ‘On the Errors of the Trinity and Christianismi Restitutio’ caused much uproar. Servetus was eventually arrested, convicted of heresy, and burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553 when John Calvin was leading the Reformation there.

The term ‘Unitarian’ entered the English language via Henry Hedworth in relation to the teachings of Italian Renaissance humanist Laelio Sozzini and the Polish Socinians (Socinianism is a system of Christian doctrine named for Italian theologian Fausto Sozzini, famous for its Nontrinitarianism). Unitarian churches were formally established in Transylvania and Poland (by the Socinians) in the second half of the 16th Century. The early Unitarian church not only rejected the Trinity, but also the preexistence of Christ as well, in many cases, predestination and original sin as put forward by Augustine of Hippo, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ developed by Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin. There were several different forms of Christology in the beginnings of the Unitarian movement; ultimately, the variety that became prevalent was that Jesus was a man, but one with a unique relationship to God. These Unitarian thinkers and groups have gone by many names, including Anti-trinitarianism.

Anglican clergyman Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) revised the ‘Book of Common Prayer,’ removing the Trinitarian Nicene Creed and references to Jesus as God. English clergyman Theophilus Lindsey also revised the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ to allow a more Unitarian interpretation. Neither cleric was charged under the ‘Blasphemy Act 1697’ that made it an offence for any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, to deny the Holy Trinity. The ‘Act of Toleration’ (1689), the long title being ‘An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certaine Lawes,’ gave relief to English Dissenters, but excluded Unitarians. Clarke and Lindsey met with substantial criticism and attempts to stifle attempts reform from the more conservative laity, priests and bishops who held substantial power within the Church of England.

In response, in 1774, Lindsey applied for registration of the Essex House as a Dissenting place of worship with the assistance of barrister Mr. John Lee. On the Sunday following the registration—April 17, 1774—the first true Unitarian congregation discreetly convened in the provisional Essex Street Chapel. In attendance were Mr. Lee, English clergyman Joseph Priestley, and the agent of the Massachusetts Colony, Benjamin Franklin. Priestley also founded a reform congregation, but, after his home was burned down in the Priestley Riots (in which a mob targeted religious dissenters, particularly Joseph Priestly), fled with his wife to America, where he became a leading figure in the founding of the church on American soil. Once laity and clergy relaxed their vehement opposition to the ‘Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813’ (also variously known as the ‘Unitarian Relief Act’) that amended the ‘Blasphemy Act 1697’ in respect of its Trinitarian provisions, the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was founded in 1825. It has its headquarters in Essex Hall, successor to Lindsey’s Essex House.

During the late 19th Century there was tension between the ‘Biblical Unitarianism’ of British Unitarian minister Robert Spears and English Unitarian Egyptologist Samuel Sharpe and those such as English religious philosopher James Martineau as Unitarians began to move away from belief in scripture. Unitarian congregations in Britain today meet under the auspices of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

In the United States, the Unitarian movement began primarily in the Congregational parish churches of New England, which were part of the state church of Massachusetts. These churches, whose buildings may still be seen today in many New England town squares, trace their roots to the division of the Puritan colonies into parishes for the administration of their religious needs. In the late 18th century, conflict grew within some of these churches between Unitarian and Trinitarian factions. In 1805, Unitarians gained key faculty positions at Harvard. In 1819, the foremost American Unitarian, William Ellery Channing preached the ordination sermon for historian and Unitarian minister Jared Sparks in Baltimore, outlining the Unitarian position. The American Unitarian Association was founded as a separate denomination in 1825. By coincidence and unknown to both parties, the AUA was formed on the same day—May 26, 1825—as the British and Foreign Unitarian Association.

After the schism, some of those churches remained within the Congregational fold, while others voted to become Unitarian. In the aftermath of their various historical circumstances, some of these churches became member congregations of the Congregational organization (later the United Church of Christ), others became Unitarian and eventually became part of the UUA. Universalist churches in contrast followed a different path, having begun as independent congregations beyond the bounds of the established Puritan churches entirely. Today, the UUA and the United Church of Christ cooperate jointly on social justice initiatives such as the ‘Sexuality Education Advocacy Training’ project. In the 19th century, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had been a Unitarian minister) and other transcendentalists (philosophers in the late 1820s and 1830s who objected to the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church taught at Harvard Divinity School), Unitarianism began its long journey from liberal Protestantism to its present more pluralist form.

Unitarians and Universalists often have had common interests and communication between them. In the often-quoted words of Thomas Starr King, pastor of the San Francisco Unitarian Church at the beginning of the Civil War: ‘The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!’ Mergers of local congregations and use of the term ‘Unitarian-Universalist’ in printed publicity date from 1932 or earlier. In 1961, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was consolidated with the Universalist Church of America (UCA), thus forming the Unitarian Universalist Association. In the same year, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) formed. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was also given corporate status in May 1961 under special acts of legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New York. In 1998, the CUC and UUA dissolved their financial accord, although they continue to cooperate in many ways.

There is no single unifying belief that all Unitarian Universalists (UUs) hold, aside from complete and responsible freedom of speech, thought, belief, faith, and disposition. Unitarian Universalists believe that each person is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues, such as the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife. UUs can come from any religious background, and hold beliefs and adhere to morals from a variety of cultures or religions.

Concepts about deity are diverse among UUs. Some are monotheistic, often from a Judeo-Christian perspective. Some have no belief in any gods (atheism); others believe in many gods (polytheism). Some believe that the question of the existence of any god is most likely unascertainable or unknowable (agnosticism). Some believe that God is a metaphor for a transcendent reality. Some believe in a female god (goddess), an Abrahamic god, or a god identified with nature or the universe (pantheism). Still others may hold with the Deist notion that a creator God exists, but does not intervene in the world or reveal itself, and can only be apprehended (if at all) through the use of reason. Many UUs reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the ‘spirit of life’ that binds all life on earth. UUs support each person’s search for truth and meaning in concepts of spirituality.

Deliberately without an official creed or dogma (per the principle of freedom of thought), many Unitarian Universalists make use of the ‘Principles and Purposes,’ which are taken from the by-laws which govern the Unitarian Universalist Association. While written to govern congregations, not individuals, many UUs use them as guides for living their faith. The ‘Seven Principles’ were created in committee and affirmed democratically by a vote of member congregations at an annual General Assembly (a meeting of delegates from member congregations). The Principles are as follows: We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: 1) The inherent worth and dignity of every person; 2) Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; 3) Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; 4) A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; 5) The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; 6) The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; and 7) Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Unitarian Universalists place emphasis on spiritual growth and development. The official statement of Unitarian Universalist principles describes the ‘sources’ upon which current practice is based: 1) Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life; 2) Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love; 3) Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; 4) Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves; 5) Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit; and 6) Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Unitarian Universalism is often referred to by its members as a living tradition, and the principles and purposes have been modified over time to reflect changes in spiritual beliefs among the membership. Most recently, the last principle, adopted in 1985, and a sixth source (adopted in 1995), ‘Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature’ were added to explicitly include members with Neopagan, Native American, and pantheist spiritualities. Unitarian Universalists tend to promote beliefs of a person that are based on their individual thoughts, and can range from strict monotheistic belief to less credal or more inclusive views.

UUs are often hesitant to articulate these basic beliefs because they don’t want to form or imply a ‘defacto creed.’ However, one has emerged and espouses the following: 1) The universe is a beautiful, intricate, complex place, the foundations of which are a Mystery (the ‘whole truth’ is too large, and our minds/knowledge/intuitions are too small to grasp it all, and therefore, we cherish and learn from diversity; 2) If the Universe can be said to have a purpose, its purpose is for us, not against us, and it is for, not against, us all; 3) Given how little we can know for sure, our focus should be on this earth and life (e.g.  beauty, justice, love); 4) We claim the rational, eschew the irrational (contrary to reason), and question the non-rational (that which is neither provable nor disprovable by reason alone, i.e. life after death). Poetically, this might be stated, ‘We come from One origin, we are headed to One destiny, but we cannot know completely what these are, so we are to focus on making this life better for all of us, and we use reason when we can, to find our way.’

Many Unitarian Universalist churches celebrate observances associated with other religious traditions, including Buddhist-style meditation groups, Jewish Seder, Yom Kipur and Passover dinners, iftaar meals (marking the breaking of Ramadan fast for Muslims), and Christmas Eve/Winter Solstice services. Children’s and youth’s religious education classes teach about the divinity of the world and the sanctity of world religions. One of its more popular curricula, ‘Neighboring Faiths’ (formerly ‘Church Across the Street’), takes middle and high school participants to visit the places of worship of many faith traditions including a Hindu temple, a Reform or Orthodox synagogue, and a Catholic church.

There is also a wide variety in how congregations conceive of themselves. Congregations call themselves ‘churches.’ ‘societies,’ ‘fellowships,’ ‘congregations,’ or eschew the use of any particular descriptor. Whether a congregation is a ‘fellowship’ or a ‘church’ sometimes hinges on whether it is led by one (or more) minister(s): those without ministers being fellowships, those with ministers being churches. For some congregations, the name can be a clue to their theological orientation. For others, avoidance of the word ‘church’ indicates a desire to distance itself from traditional Christian theology. Sometimes the use of another term may simply indicate a congregation’s lay-led or relatively new status.

While both Unitarianism and Universalism were originally Christian denominations, and still reference Jewish and Christian texts,  today, the Unitarian Universalist approach to the Christian/Jewish Bible is thus: ‘We do not, however, hold the Bible—or any other account of human experience—to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books—with imagination and a critical eye. We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that ‘revelation is not sealed.’ Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world—we look to find truth anywhere, universally.’

The most common symbol of Unitarian Universalism is the flaming chalice, often framed by two overlapping rings that many interpret as representing Unitarianism and Universalism (the symbol has no official interpretation). The chalice itself has long been a symbol of liberal religion, and indeed liberal Christianity (the Disciples of Christ also use a chalice as their denomination symbol). The flaming chalice was initially the logo of the Unitarian Service Committee during the Second World War. It was created by Austrian artist Hans Deutsch, inspired by ‘the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.’ Nevertheless, other interpretations have been suggested (some pointing to its vague resemblance to a cross in stylized representations). Many UU congregations light a chalice at the beginning of worship services. Other symbols include a slightly off-center cross within a circle (a Universalist symbol associated with the Humiliati movement in the 1950s, a group of reformist, liturgically minded clergy seeking to revive Universalism).

Hymns typically sung in UU services come from a variety of sources—traditional hymn tunes with new or adapted lyrics, spirituals, folk songs from various cultures, or original compositions by Unitarian Universalist musicians. Instrumental music is also a common feature of the typical worship service, including preludes, offertory music, postludes, or music for contemplation. Pastoral elements of the service may include a time for sharing Joys and Sorrows/Concerns, where individuals in the congregation are invited to light a candle and/or say a few words about important events in their personal lives. Many UU services also include a time of meditation or prayer, led by the minister or service leader, both spoken and silent. Responsive readings and stories for children are also typical. Many congregations also allow for a time at the end of the service, called ‘talk back,’ where members of the congregation can respond to the sermon with their own insights and questions, or even disagree with the viewpoint expressed by the minister or invited speaker.

Many UU congregations no longer observe the Christian sacraments of baptism, communion, or confirmation, at least in their traditional forms or under their traditional names. Congregations that continue these practices under their more traditional names are often federated churches or members of the Council of Christian Churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association (CCCUUA), or may have active chapters associated with the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship or similar covenant groups. ‘Child dedications’ often replace more traditional infant baptisms (though it should be noted that such ‘dedications’ are sometimes practiced also in orthodox Christian communities that do not baptize infants for theological reasons). Annual celebrations of Water Communion and Flower Communion may replace or supplement Christian-style communion (though many pluralist and Christian-oriented congregations may celebrate or otherwise make provisions for communion on Christian holy days). Confirmation may be replaced by a ‘Coming of Age’ program, in which teenagers explore their individual religious identity, often developing their own credo. After they have completed exploring their spiritual beliefs, they write a speech about it which they then personally deliver to the congregation.

In the 19th century, Unitarians and Universalists were active in abolitionism, the women’s movement, the temperance movement, and other social reform movements. The second woman’s rights convention was held at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York. Additionally, four Presidents of the United States were Unitarians: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft. In later years, Unitarians would be active in the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the social justice movement, and the feminist movement. Susan B. Anthony, a Unitarian and Quaker, was extremely influential in the women’s suffrage movement. Unitarian Universalists and Quakers still share many principles, notably that they are creedless religions with a long-standing commitment to social justice. It is therefore common to see Unitarian Universalists and Quakers working together.

UU’s were and are still very involved in the fight to end racism in the United States. John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian minister and social activist at The Community Church of New York—Unitarian Universalist was among the founders of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), chairing the latter for a time. James J. Reeb, a minister at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was clubbed in Selma, Alabama on March 8, 1965, and died two days later of massive head trauma. Two weeks after his death, Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist, was murdered by white supremacists after her participation in the protest march from Selma to Montgomery (‘Bloody Sunday’).

Several congregations have undertaken a series of organizational, procedural and practical steps to become acknowledged as a ‘Welcoming Congregation’: a congregation which has taken specific steps to welcome and integrate gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender members. UU ministers perform same-sex unions and now same-sex marriages where legal (and sometimes when not, as a form of civil protest). On June 29, 1984, the Unitarian Universalists became the first major church ‘to approve religious blessings on homosexual unions.’ Unitarian Universalists have been in the forefront of the work to make same-sex marriages legal in their local states and provinces, as well as on the national level. Gay men and lesbians are also regularly ordained as ministers, and a number of gay and lesbian ministers have, themselves, now become legally married to their partners. In May 2004, Arlington Street Church was the site of the first state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the United States.

Many congregations are heavily involved in projects and efforts aimed at supporting environmental causes and sustainability. These are often termed ‘seventh principle’ activities.

The lack of formal creed has been a cause for criticism among some who argue that Unitarian Universalism is thus without religious content. In May 2004, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ruled that Unitarian Universalism was not a ‘religion’ because it, ‘does not have one system of belief,’ and stripped the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church in Denison, Texas, of its tax-exempt status. However, within weeks, Strayhorn reversed her decision.

During the presidency of the Rev. William Sinkford, debate within the UU movement has roiled over his call to return to or create an authentic UU ‘language of reverence.’ Sinkford has suggested that UUs have abandoned traditional religious language, thereby abandoning words with potential power to others who will then dictate their meanings in the public sphere. He has suggested that Unitarian Universalists regain their proper seat at the interfaith table by making this language their own. However, some have accused Sinkford of attempting to return UU congregations to more orthodox Christian worship patterns. The project is part of an effort at increasing biblical literacy amongst Unitarian Universalists, including the publication of a book by the UUA’s Beacon Press written by former UUA President John Buehrens. The book is titled ‘Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals,’ and is meant as a handbook to be read alongside the Bible itself. It provides interpretative strategies, so that UUers (among others) might be able to engage in public debate about what the Bible says from a liberal religious perspective, rather than relinquishing to religious conservatives and literalists all control over the book’s contents and significance in matters of public and civic import.

UU is wary of ‘borrowing’ religious rituals from other faiths and traditions and using them out of context. According to Reverend Danielle Di Bona: ‘When UUs pick and choose from these things, it trivializes their spiritual practices. The specificity [of their use] is so complete, that visiting Native Americans do not participate in another tribe’s rituals, and to do so would be perceived as foolish. I would not even practice the rituals of my own tribe, because I am not an elder or spiritual leader. If this is true of her own people, then the use of these things by others who share no cultural context is seen not only as particularly foolish and inappropriate. Not all of this usage is inappropriate, though. Some taped music, written prayers, that kind of thing, might be alright, but it’s not right to fool around with it. If it’s not in context, if the user is not walking with us, if the user is not part of our struggle, then it is presumptuous.’


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